Washington State’s High-Performance Public Buildings Act requires LEED Silver certification or a design that complies with the state’s Sustainable School Design Protocol for schools larger than 5000 square feet. In a video describing the benefits of green schools that is available on the State Superintendent of Public Schools’ web site, certain claims are made about the promise of “clean, high-performance, money-saving schools” that are “a wise business choice for cost conscious schools. Relatively small increases in design and construction costs, usually less than 2 percent, ultimately bring 10 to 15 percent reductions in long-term operating costs.” The folks at KING 5 television in Seattle caught wind of these claims and decided to do some digging; you can view the station’s full report through the link at the bottom of this article. As you might guess, the station concluded that the state’s claims about green building premiums, decreased operating expenses, and higher student test scores were highly exaggerated.
The station first interviewed a number of Washington’s larger school districts, who reported their experience to be a green building premium between 3 and 7 percent, not the 2 percent claimed by the state. In the video, a Spokane School District spokesman states that one particular elementary school in Lincoln Heights would save $40,000.00 annually in operating costs. KING 5 followed up by interviewing this same spokesman, who said that this amount was an “incorrect projection” and the school is actually saving around $15,000.00. Finally, the video contends that “[o]ne California district has seen scores increase close to 30 percent in buildings with abundant daylight. While other districts may see increases of lesser magnitude, the conclusion is still the same: better light equals better scores.” KING 5 reports that this claim is “based on just one study done by a California architecture consulting firm ten years ago. WASL scores [that the station] looked at from three local schools did not show any noticeable improvement once the students moved into a new building.” This last point is particularly interesting to note given the weight that many green building advocates accord to the alleged soft benefits of sustainable design (i.e., increased worker productivity, reduced absenteeism, etc.). According to the station, representatives from the state refused to appear on camera with KING 5 to discuss the results of its report.
I think KING 5′s investigation suggests a number of important points that have been discussed previously here at GRELJ, both in prior articles and in the comments. First, as we move forward through this horrible economy, claims about projected green building performance and the benefits associated therewith that are used to buttress support for state- and local-level policymaking will be viewed with heightened scrutiny, particularly where taxpayer dollars may be used to fund such programs. Second, questionable performance issues with respect to green buildings will continue to demand strong contract language for all construction stakeholders, as well as carefully crafted marketing or other materials representing a property’s green design features and projected operating expenses. Finally, if other major media outlets follow KING 5′s lead in terms of investigating green building claims made by public entities in support of legislation, it could go a long way towards disseminating better performance data and, in turn, drive projects to achieve the higher efficiences and lower operating expenses that every industry stakeholder is pushing for.